Houston, we have a trash problem! And it is not just nasty. It can be fatal.
In Low Earth Orbit (LEO), debris ranging from tiny crystals of human urine to small school bus-sized satellites are whizzing anywhere up to 2,000km above the Earth‘s surface at roughly 8km a second.
That is 25 times faster than a bullet shot from a Beretta pistol. And that is a problem for humans who fancy going boldly into space. That debris can blow a hole right through a spacecraft, endangering crews and payloads, and creating more fragments of stuff – for which those who follow must watch out.
There is no debate that space junk is a growing threat to the commercial space industry. And it got riskier this year after India blew up a satellite into some 4,000 fragments this past March.
But some people are hoping to turn the problem of cleaning up the space junk we humans leave behind into a profitable enterprise.
How much trash is floating above our heads?
Exactly how much debris is floating in LEO is difficult to estimate. But there is undoubtedly a lot of it.
NASA‘s Orbital Debris Program Office has confirmed there are at least 23,000 fragments larger than 10cm. That is roughly the size of a tennis ball.
Meanwhile, the European Space Agency reckons the number of tennis-ball-sized junk objects is actually 34,000. That is in addition to an estimated 900,000 objects ranging in size between 1cm and 10cm, as well as 128 million pieces of debris measuring less than 1cm.
To give an idea of the kind of damage those tinier objects could cause, consider that a bullet for a Beretta pistol is 9mm.
Those millions of projectiles pose a problem to the global space industry that Morgan Stanley estimates will generate $1 trillion in annual revenues by 2040 – roughly triple what it is worth today.
Anywhere from a half to two-thirds of that projected growth hinges on satellite broadband projects. One such project, Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink, recently launched 60 satellites into LEO – the first of potentially thousands of broadband satellites forming a mega-constellation around the Earth.
And SpaceX is not the only company trying to do this. OneWeb Satellites, Telesat and Amazon’s Project Kuiper are all vying to create mega-constellations to provide broadband service pole to pole.
All of this is expensive to develop. Amazon’s Project Kuiper, for example, could cost roughly $10bn.
That’s why firms like Airbus – as well as investment banks and bootstrapping engineers and scientists – are betting that the business of tracking, netting and even harpooning rubbish in LEO could become as profitable as waste management here on Earth – a business estimated to be worth some $52.9bn annually, according to IBISWorld.
Airbus is developing a space debris removal product line not only to address the risk to the coming mega-constellations, but a predicted increase in traffic congestion in LEO.
“I know it is a truism, but space is a big place,” Matthew Stuttard, head of Advanced Systems – Space Systems Engineering at Airbus UK, told Al Jazeera. “In fact, though there is a lot of debris in terms of numbers, the debris risk is really quite low. The last really big collision was 2009.”
The collision Stuttard to which is referring was between a derelict Russian state-owned Cosmos 2251 satellite that had been left in orbit for a decade, and a commercial Iridium 33 satellite, which was a member of a highly profitable constellation of 66 satellites providing mobile phone services. On February 11, 2009, they smashed into each other at 10km a second or 22,300 miles per hour, according to the Secure World Foundation.
According to international law, if damage has been suffered and fault established, the launching state is liable. Although the parties involved tried to assess this, the fault for the Cosmos-Iridium smash-up was not determined.
Stuttard pointed out that because of international guidelines, newer satellites are designed to de-orbit to avoid collisions, but there will always be a failure rate.
“Objects at that altitude will stay there if they are not de-orbited successfully for many hundreds of years, eternity really if they are at that altitude,” Stuttard said. “There is interest in disposing of commercial satellites from Low Earth Orbit and this is the first time that that has been potentially a commercial activity. So we are responding to the market.”
With the uptick in satellite launches, and the mega-constellations in the pipeline, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently seeking comment on how to best indemnify the US against the risk posed by any space junk that US commercial operators may leave in orbit.
The risk is small, but the crash is catastrophic. So when it does happen it is too late to fix.
Europe is on the case, too
“In every business, there may be a polluter, so clearly there will always be people who will take advantage of the situation,” Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Surrey Space Centre, told Al Jazeera. “[But] the European Union is taking this problem seriously”.
The European Commission is approaching it so seriously that it underwrote roughly half of the $17m it cost to launch the proof-of-technology mission RemoveDEBRIS. Deployed from the International Space Station last year, this near-complete mission, led by the Surrey Space Centre, is the product of a seven-member academic-commercial consortium that includes Airbus.
The RemoveDEBRIS concept is to net or harpoon dead satellites and large debris, and then tow them either out of orbit or into a graveyard orbit. The spacecraft successfully netted and harpooned test debris in October and February, respectively, and is now in the process of de-orbiting itself.
The RemoveDEBRIS consortium is not alone in its quest to get the junk out of the way. Tokyo-based Astroscale has to date raised $132m from Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Investment Co, Ltd, the Innovation Network Corporation of Japan and JAFCO Co, Ltd, a private venture capital firm.
“What’s their motivation? It’s financial. But investors in space do invest for a broader vision: to invest in something that has a higher long-lasting impact. It will not have an immediate one- or two-year ROI [return on investment],” Astroscale’s Chief Operating Officer, Chris Blackerby, told Al Jazeera. “We see it as a market that’s going to develop.”
Astroscale plans to launch its two-spacecraft proof-of-technology mission, ELSA-d, next year. Consisting of a “servicer” craft and a “client” craft, the mission will test proximity rendezvous technologies and a magnetic docking mechanism to demonstrate the capability to find and magnetically capture debris.
“People are seeing that this is no longer some crazy paper exercise,” Blackerby said. “The risk is small, but the crash is catastrophic. So when it does happen it is too late to fix.”